France / Germany / Netherlands / Israel, 2005
Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 21 October 2005
Source Warner Independent Pictures 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Although suicide bombers occupy a depressingly regular spot on the nightly news, little effort has been made to understand the motivations of individuals who resort to such tactics. In Paradise Now, Palestinian writer-director Hany Abu-Assad attempts to shed light on this touchy subject, telling the story of two young men who are recruited for a bombing in Tel Aviv.
Said and Khaled are childhood friends living in the Palestinian city of Nablus. Stuck in dead-end jobs as auto mechanics, they spend most of their spare time sitting around and smoking hookah. Despite this surface apathy, when a member of an unnamed organization comes by to inform them they have been chosen for a suicide mission, they willingly agree to participate. While Khaled is the more zealous of the two, Said’s motivation is equally strong: he seeks to redeem his family’s reputation, which is still battered from the humiliation of his late father, who had been bullied into serving as an informant for Israel.
The men spend their last nights with their families, but are ordered not to disclose their plans to them. Unable to sleep, Said pays a visit to Suha, the daughter of a respected local martyr. Despite her father’s renown as a leader of the cause, Suha, who was raised in Europe, has nothing but distaste for the damage such violence has caused on both sides of the conflict. Although she makes a strong case for peace, Said disregards her words, joining Khaled the following day to record his martyrdom video and strap on the explosives. However, when their initial plan goes awry, the two men begin to reconsider their actions, with very different results.
While the plot feels increasingly contrived towards the end, these contrivances in some ways help rather than hinder the film. The believability of the events may be strained at times, but in showing the divergent paths of the two men, Abu-Assad has crafted an excellent discussion piece. Adding to this, each of the characters is rendered somewhat ambiguously. Suha is positioned as the moral center of the film, but her outsider status and wealth suggest she is not privy to the daily humiliation endured by most Palestinians, thereby diluting the forcefulness of her remarks. Also, Khaled and Said’s personalities veer from the stereotype of terrorist-as-religious-firebrand. Neither is especially observant, and boredom and frustration seem to drive them more than outright anger.
Abu-Assad views his characters sympathetically, and does not shy away from portraying the stark differences between the lives of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Still, Paradise Now is not a one-sided screed. In a nod to The Battle of Algiers, in which Gillo Pontecorvo trains his lens on a crowd that is about to be wounded in a café bombing, Abu-Assad lets the camera linger on the faces of the faces of the men’s would-be victims. Though Paradise Now may lack the stylistic verve and tight pacing of the Pontecorvo film, it shares with it a determination to scratch beneath the surface of the nightly news reports and dive right into the heart of the conflict.